It’s hard to imagine that the chilling and claustrophobic sci-fi horror drama from writer-director Seth A Smith tin can was written and filmed before the COVID-19 pandemic. So strangely prescient is its screenplay – co-written by Darcy Spidle – anticipating the conflicts the coronavirus has unleashed tin can seems almost a direct commentary on our current condition.
With curiosity, tin can was not planned as such. But it presents willing and patient viewers with the best kind of thought-provoking sci-fi hybrid with Cronenbergian body horror tropes in a uniquely cinematic visual design. The film is confined throughout its first half to a small metal chamber where its protagonist finds herself imprisoned. And in doing so, it draws on impressive visual conceit, effective sound design, and a top-notch performance from Anna Hopkins.
A brief summary sets the scene: Hopkins plays Fret, a parasitologist researcher working in a laboratory, hoping to find a cure for a fungal infection that has become pandemic. The fungus, nicknamed “coral”, becomes a hard shell before consuming the body. At the “Vault” where Freight works to find a cure, the sick – including her ex-husband John (Simon Mutabazi) – are quarantined. Meanwhile, the wealthy overseers are simultaneously investing in silent technology that could linger in stasis pods until a cure is found.
As John’s illness progresses to the point where his only hope is to be preserved in one of these pods, Fret makes a breakthrough. But before she can share her discovery, she is knocked unconscious and has settled into one of these mysterious capsules. Tubes and sensors are attached to his mouth, nose, and eyes, every port it seems except his ears, which allow him to hear John’s voice in a nearby pod. Her feet sit in a slimy paste with a mysterious floating translucent fabric.
Desperate to find out how and why she was captured and imprisoned, Fret’s analytical and problem-solving mind takes matters into her own hands, methodically dismantling the cell’s apparatus, discerning its purpose, and planning her escape. With nearly the entire first half of the film taking place in a veritable “tin can,” Hopkins’ acting skills are also put to the test, and the performance is excellent. Hopkins brings Fret’s intelligence, resolve and tenacity to life with his emotive expressions, limited gestures and sparse dialogue.
The scenography is also spartan, but very effective. Smith limits viewers’ perspective, in large part, to that of Anna, or our gaze at Anna from less than a meter away. The decor and props are low-tech but very effective in creating a mysterious, plausible and repulsive tomb; meanwhile, the evocative effects create an immersive, claustrophobic experience. tin can is a film probably best viewed in complete darkness and on a large projection screen, where its small set will have the opportunity to immerse and overwhelm a viewer; it’s definitely not meant to be watched on your iPhone.
The questions Anna faces are many: Who put her there? And why? (She certainly didn’t pay for the privilege.) Did her slaver know about her breakthrough cure? How and why was her ex-husband framed? What is the endgame of those who imprisoned her? And how, in the end, can she find her escape and hopefully bring about her potential cure for the benefit of all humanity?
The second half of tin can largely takes place outside the box itself, but is almost as limited in scope and equally compelling in design. When mushrooms and metal merge with the human form, the consequences are even more nightmarish: despite what I assume is a small budget and limited effects, the design of this whole sequence is oppressively brutalist, almost as if the specters at the Giacometti by Phil Tippett crazy god came to life as armored sentries in silence, slavishly performing their predestined duties. The environment itself becomes a steampunk organism.
What I admire so much tin can is his inventiveness in creating plausible, memorable and uniquely visceral environments from the simplest cinematic techniques: close-ups, sound effects, practical visual effects, etc. A film does not need to be loaded in CGI to create a unique and expressive environment: this, crazy godand After Blue (Dirty Paradise) this whole year demonstrate that very fact.
Our collective humanity’s attempts to contain COVID-19 have shown that a pandemic is much more than viral transmission of exhaled particles of infectious respiratory fluids; it is the way in which our response to this transmission presents our most human weaknesses: our egos, our jealousies, our anxieties, our prejudices and our beliefs become barriers to the eradication of the disease.
It’s a dot tin can done, and unambiguously. What’s surprising is that Smith shot the film in 2019, the year before COVID-19’s pandemic status. How could it have been so prescient to make a film with so many ramifications and implications for what would happen a year later? Its pandemic is more visceral and visual, with growths resembling teeth or bones consuming the bodies of its victims, but it is no less deadly and no less divisive than the coronavirus. While I’m sure no filmmaker wants their work delayed for any reason, Smith’s tin can is just slated for theatrical release and, given our protracted and divisive response to the recent pandemic, more timely and potentially impactful than ever.
tin can opens in theaters August 5 and on VOD August 9, with a home video release scheduled for September 6.